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Saturday, October 26, 2013

When Reviews are Wrong #2

A crowd gathered this afternoon at the Red Balloon Bookshop to celebrate the publication of Spike: Ugliest Dog in the Universe. It is the story of a dog whose awful owner abandons him after the dog wins the Ugliest Dog in the Universe contest. Joe, the boy who lives next door, befriends Spike and tries to convince his mother they should adopt the dog. Spike does all he can to be the best dog possible, even taking lessons from Evangeline, the cat next door. When his doggy skills save her life, Joe's mom acknowledges his beauty, calling him the most beloved dog in the world. Having watched this book evolve from idea to completion, it was a pleasure to observe the awe of audience members as she read the story and showed the unique illustrations (created from well-worn denim, a wedding dress, and Canson paper, mounted on garage door insulation).

Once again, I was disappointed to read the review of the book in School Library Journal. The reviewer completely missed the point of the book! He noted that "the background is made from torn old jeans, and although the artist uses them creatively, it's questionable whether they add anything to the piece." He contradicted himself earlier by saying, "Characters are crafted from fabric and paper with mixed results." The whole idea of well-loved, well-worn jeans is that they are still beautiful to the wearer (as shown by the pair of jeans that inspired her, shown on the jacket flap). Debra craftily combined the best holes in the denim with images of Spike and key words. The message that it is what is inside a person (or canine) is beautiful shines through in Spike. The reviewer wrote that "the story feels overcomplicated and convoluted" but apparently missed the ideas of friendship, fitting in, and finding one's own worth.

At the beginning of the story, Spike says, "If you could see inside my heart, you'd say...beautiful." I do say that...about Spike, Joe, and Debra's work on this book.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wild Boy

Most people hold a fascination for the stories about humans who have been raised in the wild and then introduced to civilized life. For example, Karen Hesse's The Music of Dolphins, about a young girl named Mila who was raised by dolphins, is one of the most popular books in our library. Mary Losure's latest book, Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron, is certain to intrigue readers as well. In it, she follows the life of the wild boy discovered in 1797 when he was about nine years old in the mountains of southern France. People from the village of Lacaune capture the boy (twice!). He was treated as a scientific specimen by some who believed there was a species of homo ferus or wild man. Others showered him with compassion, including a kind gardener, a lovely woman who perhaps became like a mother to him, and Dr. Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, who tried to teach the boy to communicate and who believed the boy should be happy. This telling of the boy's life story is respectful and poignant, and the text is accompanied by charcoal sketches by Timothy Basil Ewing that convey the emotions the wild one was certain to have experienced. 

When he once escaped as a young adult, it is believed he made his way toward Notre Dame, unnoticed by the crowds around him, and eventually arrested by the police. This photo was taken from atop the cathedral.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Moo? Moo! Moo.

As I scrunched into the only floor space left at the Red Balloon Bookshop yesterday afternoon, I beamed in wonder as Mike Wohnoutka and David LaRochelle talked about their book Moo! Besides being friends and members of the same writing critique group, the two are also excellent at presenting together. David began with the idea for a one word story and how LONG he waited for a response from an editor who initially wanted to publish the book. Mike talked about how he had decided to try a different style in 2010 and was approached by David about creating the artwork for Moo! Seeing all the color labels for his paint shades for the artwork made me smile, thinking of treasures like that in the form of color studies in the Kerlan Collection (my favorite being Don Freeman's work on Corduroy). Mike and David told stories of their joint work, relayed a few little-known secrets about the book, and delighted the audience with the humor of the cow's expression and the complementary artwork. David ended by asking if Moo! really was a one-word book. Observant audience members noted there are actually six words!  I am glad I get to hear the presentation again when they team up for a Family Reading Night event at school in November!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Revisiting Paris

Another book intersection occurred in my reading this week. This time it was in Paris, the City of Light. In Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, twelve-year-old Sophie comes to Paris with her guardian (though not her legal guardian) Charlie in search of the mother she knows must be alive, despite all evidence to the contrary. Mothers are a thing you need, like air, she thought, and water. Even paper mothers were better than nothing-even imaginary ones. Mothers were a place to put down your heart. They were a resting stop to recover your breath. (p.32). Found by Charlie in a cello case after the wreck of the Queen Mary, Sophie has led an extraordinary life, but the lives of the Rooftoppers - children without homes who live on the roofs of Paris sometime around 1890 - are almost unfathomable to her. Yet she, whose hair is the color of lightning, is drawn to the rooftops, seeking the sound of Fauré's Requiem played in double time.

The End of Light: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light by Paul Bogard has taken me to Paris as an observer of how light has forced the redefinition of night. I did not walk the streets in the dark, out of fear, I suppose. After reading the chapter "Tales From Two Cities" (the other city being London), I wish I had walked the same streets as the author and Francois Jousse, the man who for more than 30 years has been responsible for lighting the monuments and bridges of Paris. The books is so much more than a portrait of Paris, of course, and I encourage people to evaluate the use of lighting in the world through this book. The Notes section is especially entertaining.

As Charlie tells Sophie, "Books crowbar the world open for you." 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When Reviews Are Wrong

Librarians read reviews to learn about new books. Most use those reviews to select the titles to be purchased for their library collections. They rely on reviews in reputable sources to provide honest assessments of books. Some librarians, like me, go beyond the reviews, using them as tools, as one perspective about books. Only after reading books myself do I make a collection addition decision. Though I review books here (and at various speaking engagements) and can hardly stop myself from sharing oral reviews in bookshops, I have not attempted to become a reviewer for one of the national review publications. But I have been tempted. Especially when reviewers completely misunderstand or misrepresent books in their reviews. 

Take a recent SLJ review of David LaRochelle's Arlo's ARTrageous Adventure. The reviewer wrongly claims that "the art in the book is based on the unfortunate premise that art museums are stuffy and boring." The reviewer goes on to claim that kids will believe the artwork comes alive just for Arlo. It ends with the suggestion that readers who understand the myth that culture is boring are the best audience for the book, rather than tainting the enthusiastic minds of those unexposed to that idea. The reviewer did not understand the book at all!

David LaRochelle noted this in a recent interview: “The book is a reflection that there are lots of ways to approach art. It doesn’t have to be a serious chore; it can be a joyful experience.” He spent many hours at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts while making the art for the book. The intention was clearly not to perpetuate a myth about boring culture but to encourage readers to marvel at art, to wonder about those who create art, to view ourselves and our world with open eyes. I have yet to share this book with a child who believed art to be boring. Readers young and old love the idea that Arlo's grandmother appears to be an art expert, yet her pronouncements are quickly turned around by the artwork and the boy's imagination. I hope readers of the review will go beyond the reviewers wrong assessment and get this book in the hands of all readers.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


My friend David brought me a wonderful gift from the Heartland Fall Forum: Lois Ehlert's soon-to-be released The Scraps Book: Notes From a Colorful Life (in F&G format). Having loved her work as a librarian and as a mom and as a book-giver, I am thrilled to have this glimpse into her studio life and personal experiences. The book begins with these words:
"Don't read this book (unless you love books and art)"

Each page is a mixture of her own story, an piece or two from one of her published books, a photograph from her life, and often photographs of the tools she uses to create her art. Asparagus from Eating the Alphabet accompanies a photograph of her parents and the words, "I was lucky; I grew up with parents who made things with their hands." Her mom's love of sewing resulted in the sharing of scraps and scissors. Her dad's workshop allowed her to use tools and art supplies. They provided a space for her to dream and create. 

She addresses all the questions children want to know about authors and illustrators, like where book ideas are born, how to keep track of those ideas, what happens when an author revises an idea, how an illustrator organizes the artwork for a story. Interspersed with her story are ideas for readers to use in creating their own art. The collage art genius describes her process of cutting out pieces like a puzzle in a messy way to form her illustrations, integrating objects she adores and those nearby. Near the end she writes, "You might ask: why did I choose to be an artist? I think it's the other way around. Art chose me." 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Delivery

During my senior year of high school, I took pre-calculus. My homeroom teacher was the excellent instructor. Most Monday nights, my friend Greg came over to study with me. Our exams were on Tuesdays, and we could make one notecard to use during the each test. They were graded and returned to us in Thursdays with a number in the upper left corner, the rank of your score in comparison to that of the other 80+ students. The guys in my class (who generally did not study much) joked that the person with the highest number would be president of the math club for the coming week. Greg and I were always quiet about our single-digit scores, glad to be numbers one and two most of the time.

Yesterday, two books arrived in the mail, taking me back to those days of ranked scores. My friend Bernard (who took calculus at the university that year from his professor father) has written calculus textbooks and sent our family the latest edition. He is also the author of climbing guides for Rocky Mountain Natuonal Park and now this latest for St. Vrain Canyons. He is an engaging writer and excellent at description. So, this afternoon I began reading Calculus for Scientists and Engineers: Early Transcendentals. Armed with a composition book, I am motivated to restart my own calculus journey (halted 28 years ago when I did not need it for graduation). Interspersed between pages are notes from Bernard about things we should know, making me smile as much as the letters he and I exchanged every summer while their family lived in Estes Park during middle school. 

I love the definition in the first page.

"Calculus is the study of functions, and because we use functions to describe the world around us, calculus is a universal language for human inquiry." 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Comforting Words

Tonight's publication party for Joyce Sidman and her new book What the Heart Knows was a celebration of comfort. Those in attendance brought poems to share, held rocks specially selected by our friend Debra Frasier for the occasion, and enjoyed cookies and milk (probably the best pair of comfort foods). Most important, we listened to choice tell the stories behind the origins of several of the books blessings, charms, and chants, marveling at her gift of choosing and arranging words in just the right ways. 

Monday, October 7, 2013


Katherine (Kate) Olivia Sessions transformed the city of San Diego through her dedication to finding trees that could endure the climate and then planting them. Reading her story in The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins made me marvel at her determination and foresight. It is the illustrations, though, done  by Jill McElmurry, that I adore. The gouache paintings invite a walk in the woods. Green hues prevail. Bark, twigs, leaves, needles, buds, veins, and soil come alive with textured detail. Tree species are carefully labeled and magnified on pages to emphasize Kate's thoughtful decisions of tree placement. Especially lovely are the envelopes she sent to gardeners like herself all over the world, asking for seeds. Kate lived from 1857-1940 and was awarded the Meyer Medal for her horticultural service in 1939.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Monuments Men

When learning, reading, and experiences spiral together, I feel the incredible connections of our world. Such has been the case as I read The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel. While walking through the galleries of the Louvre this summer, I was aware of the unfortunate experiences of some pieces of art housed there. Until reading this book, I had no idea the extent of the seizures of artwork by the Nazis and their attempts to return seized pieces to the Fatherland. Having walked through the Jardin de Tuileries each day during my stay, I cannot imagine it filled with tanks and troops and even a prisoner camp. The men of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (many of whom were curators before becoming soldiers) worked under the direction of General Eisenhower to assist the European countries in recovering stolen and restoring pieces and protecting historic places and objects. Their work, and the risks they and the people of those countries took, makes what has been saved even more precious. I marvel that the carefully displayed items have had incredible journeys.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Someday Lists

Yesterday's discussion about book logs prompted today's mini-lesson with third graders: the someday list. The books you want to read someday, sooner or later. My someday list is several pieces. Part of it is housed on My Account on the public library's website. This was a fascinating thing to the children, especially when I told them they could do the same thing! Another part of my list is in my small, ruled Moleskine. Those titles get added when a friend shares a book title or when I find something interesting at the bookshop. Still another part of my list does not even take a list form. The reviews in professional magazines (some starred, others marked with a question mark) prompt me to make reading decisions.

My friend and teaching collaborator took photos of the piles of books on her bedside table and explained the hierarchy of the stacks. She revealed something that made me consider my lists and piles. Some books always get moved to the bottom, those we just cannot seem to start for whatever reason. 

What methods do you use to keep a someday list?